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UU Infidels Newsletter
Spring 2004
Secular Humanism (Atheism) and Ethics
by Landon Elswick

(This article is a presentation that was delivered at the October 2003 meeting of the Fredericksburg (Virginia) Secular Humanists.)

Good Evening and welcome to our regular monthly meeting of the Fredericksburg Secular Humanists. This evening I would like to discuss a combination of ideas that many of our fellow citizens would say are completely incompatible-Secular Humanism (Atheism) and Ethics. You see, those folks assume that an Atheist can't possibly be ethical. We will explore this assumption this evening.

Before I continue with this discussion, I think I should clarify what I am talking about when I use the word ethics.

In the context of this presentation, the word ethics will be used interchangeably with the word morality. Although in the strictest sense, ethics refers to the individual character of a person or persons, whereas morality seems to point to relationships between human beings. Ethics deals with what is right or wrong in human behavior and conduct. What makes any person or action good, bad, right, or wrong and how do we know that they are good, bad, right, or wrong (epistemology)? What part does the interest of others play in the making of moral decisions? What theories of conduct? Why are they valid or invalid? Can we formulate general rules or laws of conduct? Or are proper behaviors dependent entirely upon the situation? Are lying, lulling, cheating, stealing, and certain sexual acts right or wrong? Why?

From observation, it seems that whatever human beings consider good will involve happiness and pleasure in some way, and whatever they consider bad will involve unhappiness in some way. It is difficult to deny that whatever is good involves at least some pleasure or happiness, and whatever is bad involves some pain or unhappiness. So, what about actions that will bring one person some pleasure but will cause pain to another? An example might be the sadist who derives pleasure from beating another person. From this example, we can see that bringing pleasure to someone does not necessarily mean that an act is good. In other words the principle does not necessarily work in reverse -everything that brings someone pleasure is not necessarily good. Certain pleasures are malicious. However, everything that is good is associated with pleasure. Creating pleasure is a necessary condition but it is not sufficient.

Whatever is good will also probably involve some "kind or degree of excellence." By excellence, I mean that the person or act meets exacting standards. I am only stating that there will probably be some of these elements present. For example, a good person performing a right action might not be particularly happy and might even find that what he or she is doing is painful; nonetheless, the recipients of the right action might be made happy by it and the right action might also involve excellence. Now, we are starting to "muddy the waters", an action has created some pain and unhappiness and also some pleasure, happiness and excellence. However, we labeled the action as a "right" action. Why? The action could also be labeled as bad. It has pain and unhappiness associated with it. So, again it appears that pain and unhappiness are necessary condition but not sufficient condition to label an action, thing or person as bad. As stated above, happiness, pleasure and excellence are necessary conditions but not sufficient conditions for labeling an action, person or thing as good.

What other attributes are associated with "good" and "right"? How about harmony and creativity? "Good" things possess harmony and creativity. "Bad" things possess discord and lack creativity. For example, if a person can end a fight between two people and help them live together in peace, then a good action has been performed.

Let me discuss what morality is not? Ethics vs. Aesthetics: Ethics is the study of morality -what is good, bad, right, or wrong in a moral sense. Aesthetics is a study of what constitutes the beautiful and the non- beautiful in our lives. When we say that a picture is beautiful (meaning very good), we are speaking in terms of aesthetic rather than moral or ethical values. That is a reasonably obvious example. How about:

Functional Goodness vs. Ethical Goodness: Aristotle thought that everything has a function. If we could determine what the function of human beings is then we could determine whether a human being is good or bad. Aristotle thought that the proper function of human beings is to reason. Therefore, he concluded that being moral meant "reasoning well." Others have said that a human's primary function is to serve God. What do you think? Do people have a function? Should they be judged (morally) by how well they perform that function?

Morals vs. Manners, or Etiquette: Often, the distinction between morality and etiquette is blurred. We need to distinguish between moral and immoral behavior and manners. Suppose a woman wears very short skirts to work. Has she done something immoral or has she simply displayed poor manners? She has not done anything immoral. She has simply violated the current "dress code" expected in an office setting. Other religious orders and cultures may think otherwise. What do you think? Generally speaking, in our society, we feel that good manners go along with good morals. We assume that if people are taught to behave correctly in social situations that they will also behave correctly in moral situations. Do you agree with that? Now that I have discussed some of the attributes of moral behavior and contrasted morality ethical goodness with aesthetics, functional goodness and manners, let us consider where morality comes from.

Where does morality come from? I thought I should discuss this issue here tonight because some of you will be attending the UUFF service next Sunday with the sermon entitled "Religious Naturalism and Naturalist Theism." Has morality always been a part of the world? Did morality originate from some supernatural being? Is it embedded within nature itself? Is it strictly a product of the minds of human beings? Again, here are the choices:

1. Comes from some supernatural being or beings.
2. Embedded within nature itself.
3. The product of human beings.

So, here are the theories corresponding to the choices:

l. The Supernatural Theory - Some people believe that values come from some higher or supernatural being: Yahweh or God (the Jews); God and his son, Jesus (the Christians); Allah (the Muslims); and Brahma (the Hindus); to name a few. If human beings want to be moral (and usually they are encouraged in such desires by some sort of temporal or eternal reward), then they must follow the principles or teachings of these beings. If people believe in a principle rather than a supernatural being or beings, then they will be untrue to the highest moral principle and will be punished.

2. The Natural Law Theory - Others believe that morality somehow is embodied in nature, and that there are "natural laws" that human beings must adhere to if they are to be moral. St. Thomas Aquinas argued for this as well as the supernatural basis for morality, so did Immanuel Kant. For example, some people will state that homosexuality is immoral because it goes against "natural moral law" -that is, it is against nature for beings of the same sex to sexually desire one another or engage in sexual acts.

-Criticisms of the Supernatural Theory: The existence of the supernatural, however, is only a belief, based on faith, and there is no conclusive proof of the existence. Therefore, it is difficult to establish with any certainty that morality comes from this source.

-Criticisms of Natural Law Theory: First, the "laws of nature" such as the law of gravity are quite different from man-made laws having to do with morality or the governing of societies. Natural laws are descriptive, whereas moral and societal laws are prescriptive. In other words, the natural law does not say that the ball, when thrown into the air, should or ought to fall to the ground, as we say that human beings should not or ought not kill other human beings. Rather, the law of gravity says that the ball does or will fall when thrown, describing rather than prescribing its behavior. Are there any natural moral laws that prescribe how beings in nature should or ought to behave or not behave? If there are, I don't know what they would be. Example, as mentioned above, human beings may wish to prescribe, for one reason or another, that homosexual behavior is wrong, but it is difficult to argue that there is some "law of nature" that prohibits homosexuality.

Because all moral laws have been delivered to human beings by other human beings, we can only say for sure that our morality and ethics comes from ourselves-that is from human origins. Morality and moral responsibility must be derived from human beings. People must decide what is right or good and what is wrong or bad by using both their experience and their best and deepest thoughts and applying them as rationally and meaningfully as they can. Many people don't accept those statements. Let me talk a little more about morality and religion.

Morality and Religion: Can there be morality without religion? Must a god or gods exist for there to be any real point to morality? If people aren't religious can they ever be truly moral? If the answer is no, which religion is the real foundation for morality? There seem to be as many conflicts as there are different religions and religious viewpoints. Just because religion may have preceded any formal legal or separate moral system in human history, or it may have provided very powerful and effective sanctions for morality, does not at all prove that morality must of necessity have a religious basis. It is my contention that morality need not, and should not be based solely on religion. First, in order to prove that one must be religious in order to be moral, we would have to prove conclusively that a supernatural world exists and that morality exists there as well as in the natural world. Even if this could be proved, which is very doubtful, we would have to show that the morality existing in the supernatural world has some connection with that which exists in the natural world. It seems obvious; however, that in dealing with morality, the only basis we have is this world, the people who exist in it, and the action they perform. Test this idea. Take any set of religious admonitions and ask honestly which of them would be absolutely necessary for the establishment of a moral society. I do not mean to imply that morality cannot be founded on religion; it is an obvious empirical fact that it has been, is, and probably will be in the future. I am saying that morality need not be founded on religion at all, and I would add that there is a danger of narrowness and intolerance if religion becomes the sole foundation of morality. It is an empirical fact that nonreligious people can be moral. Also, although it is obvious that most religions contain ethical systems, it is not true that all ethical systems are religiously based; therefore, there is no necessary connection between morality and religion. The fact that completely nonreligious people (for example, atheist ethicists) can evolve significant and consistent ethical systems is proof of this.

I will now briefly examine the basis of one moral system founded on religion. The so-called Ten Commandments fall under the category of Rule Nonconsequentialist (Deontological) Ethical Theories. The rule nonconsequentialists believe that there are or can be rules that are the only basis for morality and that consequences do not matter. It is the following of the rules (which are right moral commands) that is moral, and the concept of morality cannot be applied to the consequences that ensue when one follows the rules. The Ten Commandments are based on Divine Command Theory. Divine Command Theory states that morality is not based upon the consequences of actions or rules, nor upon self- interest or other-interest, but rather upon something "higher" than these mere mundane events of the imperfect human or natural worlds. It is based upon the existence of an all-good being or beings that are supernatural and have communicated what they should and should not do in a moral sense. In order to be moral, then, human beings must follow the commands and prohibitions of such a being or beings to the letter without concerning themselves with consequences, self interest, or anything else. The difficulties with the Divine Command Theory are inherent in the lack of rational foundation for the existence of some sort of supernatural being. Even if one could prove conclusively the existence of the supernatural, how could one prove that any supernatural being is morally trustworthy? The rules themselves might be morally valid, but the justification for following them regardless of the consequences is weak. Even if we were to accept the existence of this supernatural being and its commandments, how could we be sure that we are interpreting them correctly? Interpretations of the Ten Commandments vary and often conflict. Here are some general problems with Rule Nonconsequentialist (Deontological) Ethical Theories:

1. Why should we follow rules if the consequences of following them could be bad even for a few, but also, in some cases, for all concerned?

2. How can we resolve conflicts among rules that are all equally and absolutely binding?

3. Is there such a thing as a moral rule with Absolutely no exceptions, given the complexities of human behavior and experience? If so, what is it?

What about "The Golden Rule"? "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Seems to me, that in applying "The Golden Rule", we are assuming that what the other person will want or need is the same as what you will want or need and this is not always true. Also, "The Golden Rule" doesn't really tell us what we should do. It only gives us a method of testing what we have chosen to do.

Ok, even "The Golden Rule" has flaws. So, what are we to do? I repeat,

Because all moral laws have been delivered to human beings by other human beings, we can only say for sure that our morality and ethics comes from ourselves -that is from human origins. Morality and moral responsibility must be derived from human beings. People must decide what is right or good and what is wrong or bad by using both their experience and their best and deepest thoughts and applying them as rationally and meaningfully as they can.

Landon Elswick is a founding member of the UU Infidels.